Random Thoughts – Randocity!

How do I make my book a bestseller?

Posted in Amazon, author, best practices, novels by commorancy on September 12, 2019

teddy-bear-book-readAh, that age old question. How do you get anything to sell like wildfire? The answer is, it’s a complicated answer. This article assumes a first time published author. Let’s explore.

Going Viral

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Much of the reason anything becomes a hot seller is ultimately out of the control of the seller. If it’s a book, as suggested by the title, then there are a lot of situations at play.

Sure, the content within the book can make or break a book, but even if the book is the best written, best conceived story and offers entirely fresh ideas, that doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, nothing guarantees success of a book. What makes a book successful is luck (and lots of it) and being in the right place at the right time. You can control your words in the book. You can control where the book is sold. You can control lots of aspects of distribution, paper types (if printed) and so on. But, what you can’t control is how people will receive the book and, ultimately, how many will buy into it. That is a matter of luck.

There are some books that simply become ubiquitous in pop culture. There are others that simply fade into obscurity. There’s no way to know if your book will light the proverbial fire or be eclipsed by someone else’s book. You simply can’t know.

Planning and Control

When considering authoring a novel, there are formulas involved. Such formulas include how many words should be in the book, what genre the book belongs in, how many copies that you can print, how big the font should be in the book and so on. These physical book attributes are within your control. However, it’s doubtful that these physical attributes will play a part in whether book becomes wildfire. Oh, they play a part to be sure, but the biggest factor is still luck. Luck, for example, is entirely out of your control. You can’t force luck, you can only hope that lady luck looks down upon you and smiles.

Your book’s content does play a role in being a bestseller. Meaning, a poorly written, badly conceived novel has no chance of becoming a bestseller. The book content, as I said above, is within your control. What that means is that you need to write your book to the best of your ability and get help whenever your story goes beyond your means of control.

In other words, you need to write your book so that it at least matches the quality of most other bestsellers. No better, no worse. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be of a quality that at least gives it a fighting chance at becoming a bestseller. However, with that said, the pieces within your control do not at all guarantee (even if your novel is excellently crafted and written) success. Success of your novel is predicated on whether readers find pleasure in reading your novel and, more importantly, it resonates with enough people to start the viral wildfire.

Viral Wildfires

These types of wildfires can start anywhere. It could be as simple as Oprah Winfrey reading your novel and inexplicably plugging it on her show. It could be helped by having a 10 million viewer YouTube channel mention and review your novel on their channel. It could be a Twitter account with a huge following who incidentally reads and plugs your book on their channel. It could be all of the above.

With that said, you can’t force any of these viral situations. You can only hope they come to pass. They might, they might not. It all depends on your content choice, the situations and if your content resonates with the right set of people at the right moment in time.

However, you can’t write your content with that audience or set of circumstances in mind. There’s no way to know if your novel will be read by someone famous and plugged. Yes, it can happen, but you can’t be guaranteed this outcome.

Book Topics

If you’ve not yet written a book and you’re looking to do so, you should solidify a list of topics that you think you can spend many hours writing about. You have to like your characters for you to remain interested in spending many hours involved in crafting a tale around them.

Write what you know

In addition to writing about likeable characters, you should write about the things where you have knowledge. Sure, if your novel is about space travel, you might need to research such topics as the vacuum of space, exactly how cold space is and how fast it freezes objects solid, but you might also need to research the latest theories on space travel ideas. Of course, you can craft fanciful new propulsion systems that have never before been dreamed, but you might want to ground those systems in at least some measure of Earth physics. Bringing fanciful ideas back to the real is the way to make them seem genuine to the reader.

You’ll also want to determine your books genre, such as romance, fiction, non-fiction, historical, drama, comedy, etc. You can even write a memoir if you think it has some social significance to other people.

Audience

When crafting your manuscript, you’ll want to always keep your audience in mind. Don’t switch audiences in the middle of your book. If you begin the book assuming a general level of adult intelligence, stick with that. For example, if you’re using “big” words and phrases to describe your situations, don’t change halfway through the novel and start using smaller words and phrases. Your readers will notice. Stick to the formula in which the novel began. If you assume a certain level of adult reader intelligence at the open of the novel, stick through this all the way through to the end. Be consistent.

If your character is from the south with a southern drawl, maintain that character’s drawl throughout the novel. Don’t drop the drawl partway through and assume your readers won’t notice. Consistency in writing is the key to keeping the novel thoroughly readable throughout. It’s all about consistency. If you break consistency, it can break the suspension of disbelief and have readers walk away leaving half of the book unread.

How many words?

This is a question many new authors ask. How many words required for a novel is really all dependent on the chosen genre and how much it takes to tell a story.

If you’re writing a novel with 4 short stories, then your short story lengths will be far shorter than a full novel. A short story might contain as few as 7,500 words up to 40,000 words (on the very high side).

A Young Adult fiction genre novel can get away with as few as 45,000 to 55,000 words. However, a fiction novel targeted at an adult audience should contain at least 80,000 words up to 110,000 words. These are, of course, guidelines. Your novel could be much longer than this if you so choose. However, longer novels may turn off some readers (and publishers). Instead, you might want to break it into a multipart series and cap the words per novel. Then, begin writing a new novel in your series with any remaining story ideas that you have.

For children’s books (aged 7 to 12), the maximum number of words is 15,000 to 30,000. These books should be shorter.

For non-fiction adult genre novels, the number of words start with at least 60,000 words and go up from there.

To be considered by a publisher, your novel should have these numbers of words, depending on genre. If you’re unsure and you have an open dialog going with one or more publishers, simply ask them if the length is sufficient to consider publishing. If you get a rejection letter, you should read that carefully to understand what, if any, reasons for rejection are included. However, the publisher may not include any solid reasons.

Planning your Novel

It’s probably not a good idea to go into the act of actually writing a novel before you have story ideas and story progressions fleshed out. This means writing down your ideas, character names, situations and story arcs. You’ll also want to flesh out how you want your characters to grow, learn and what the ultimate goal is for your character. Are they on a path of self-enlightenment? Do they need to be taught a lesson? Do they need emotional guidance? How is their story going to progress?

Stories that are character driven are the most likeable and the most likely to go viral. Use your characters to drive the story forward. They are the ones who hold your story’s keys and who can unlock the story progression. Use characters to drive your story forward.

Imagination is part of this process, but part of it is using characters in ways to logically progress a story. For example, if your main character is a cop who upholds the law, it wouldn’t make sense for them to continually break the law at every turn and not feel remorse or guilt about doing so. Of course, rules are made to be broken, so perhaps that’s your twist?

Speaking of twists. Does every story need to have a twist? No. Stories can be told with or without a twist. A twist is great if it makes sense during a particularly revealing section, but it’s not required. The problem with twists is foreshadowing… which is a very subtle art. If you foreshadow too hard about events to come, people will see your twist(s) coming way in advance, which ruins the setup. If you fail to foreshadow at all, the twist may not have enough impact and may even seem confusing. Planning your novel for a revealing twist can be difficult. Planning is important here. But, so is….

Feedback

It is important to get feedback on your novel. Let someone read your novel and give honest criticism and feedback. If you include a twist, understand your advanced reader’s comments about that twist. You’ll want to know if they guessed it way in advance and, if they did, what you might do to tone down what led them to that conclusion early.

You want to remain in control of your reader’s thoughts about the characters and story all along the way. You don’t want them jumping to conclusions about your story in advance. Have the reader unfold the story as it’s written and don’t give them too much information that could lead their thinking astray or draw early conclusions. If you’re writing a mystery novel, you always want to keep your reader guessing throughout. In fact, you might want to squash any conclusions they might reach too quickly. That way, if your reader jumped to an incorrect conclusion, you can unfold the story and immediately tell them that their conclusion is wrong. Basically, keep the reader on their toes. Don’t let them second guess your novel’s conclusion halfway through the book.

Feedback is your answer. Let people read your novel in advance and be prepared to edit your novel in ways that reduce such conclusion jumping and improve the overall storytelling.

Wildfires and Bestsellers

Let’s return to original question that began this article. Luck is ultimately your answer. While you can write your best novel with your best situations, the novel may still fall flat with readers. Publishers understand this. Authors, likewise, need to understand this. You can’t know how the public (or critics) will respond to your novel.

Some of the best series didn’t start out as bestsellers. It took time for the wildfire to grow. The Harry Potter series is a good example. The first two novels did respectable sales, but it wasn’t really until the third novel released that the viral wildfire started. At that point, her books flew out of the stores with each successive release. It might take two or three entries into a novel series before such wildfires begin. Even still, there are plenty of novel series that do not get that level of attention. They do respectable novel sales, but they don’t get anywhere close to the magic of Harry Potter.

Don’t go into a writing a novel expecting a wildfire. Go into writing a novel to tell your story… to let other people read about your characters and situations. If it grows into a wildfire and becomes a bestseller, then all the better. But, don’t go in expecting this outcome. Instead, focus on the novel and in low expectations of sales. If it does better than you expect, great. If it doesn’t, you aren’t disappointed. You can’t force luck. It either strikes your novel series or it doesn’t. Because such luck is extremely rare and fickle, you can’t expect it. You can hope for it, a little… but with tempered prudence. Again, don’t go into your novel’s release expecting viral things to happen.

Amazon

A discussion about writing and selling books wouldn’t be complete without discussing Amazon. Sure, Barnes and Noble still exists as a brick-and-mortar book retailer. And, there are other physical book sellers to consider. But, Amazon can ultimately make or break your book single-handedly. It is such a large seller of books today that if you don’t leverage Amazon to sell your book, you can’t really make your book a success. Amazon is, in fact, critical to your book’s success. And, so is Amazon’s review system. Amazon’s review system drives its recommendation engine. You’ll want to encourage your readers to review your book on Amazon. Many avid readers need little prompting, but by getting more and more reviews, Amazon is more likely to recommend your book to its customers.

Apple is also a digital book seller, so you may want to leverage them, but to a much lesser degree. They aren’t nearly as big as Amazon, but your publisher should ensure all such digital book sellers like Google Books, Apple, Kobo (the remnants of Borders) and several other smaller digital sellers are supplied with digital copies to sell.

Having a publisher on your side is critical to ensure that your book is distributed as widely as possible. Only a publisher can ensure your novel gets the wide treatment that’s required for it to become a bestseller. Trying to self-publish, you simply don’t have the level of resources needed to make this a reality. A publisher does. This is why a publisher is important to your success.

A publisher will ensure your book is distributed not only through Amazon, but through all other necessary book outlets to ensure your book has the widest exposure and distribution possible to help your book achieve that coveted bestseller ranking.

Publisher?

Publishers are both a blessing and a curse. They are a necessary presence in the book industry. They help authors get their words into the hands of avid readers… readers who can then turn the book into a bestseller. Publishers help you refine your book’s content into the best that it can be, but they also ensure that your book will hit the shelves in all of the necessary places… both physical and digital.

The difficulty with publishers is not to get burned. Publishers will take a cut of your book’s profits to cover their expenses. Those expenses include their salaries, their office rents, printing of the book itself, advertising and so on. Getting a “book deal” means signing away some of your book’s profits to the publisher to help them stay in business. This means you’ll get far less profits from selling the book than you might realize. Oh, you’ll get some money for each copy sold, but don’t expect much. Most of that money goes back to the publisher to keep their lights on, offices open and staff employed. That’s the bane of using a publisher.

On the other hand, self-publishing means you get to keep 100% of the profits. But, good luck in getting your novel printed and into the physical stores like Target, Walmart and Barnes and Noble yourself. Getting that far would be difficult, if not impossible. That’s not to say you can’t self-publish, but don’t expect to get much industry consideration. Using a publisher, your novel may be considered for prestigious industry awards. Using self-publishing, those awards are almost always off of the table. Getting an industry award can help the viral wildfires burn hotter, thus getting even more copies sold. Using a publisher opens a lot of doors. Self-publishing means more profits, but less doors are opened in the industry.

Publishers are a known quantity in the industry and will do almost everything to see that your novel succeeds. For this investment reason, publishers are extremely picky on which novels and authors they are willing to represent. When they accept an author and their novel into their publishing house, they are taking a risk. That risk could mean an expensive failure. Because publishers want to reduce that risk as much as possible, they only accept limited book types and authors. What this all means is…

Expect Rejection

Publishers are rightly skittish. It’s expensive to publish, advertise and widely distribute a book throughout the country or, indeed, the world. Because of that risk, they only want the best books and the best possible prospects. This means that publisher representatives are extremely picky about what they will accept and when and how they will accept it. Randomly sending your manuscript to a publisher without advance notice, you’re sure to be rejected. In fact, they likely won’t even open the manuscript. Many times they won’t even send it back, even if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Instead, they’ll trash it without even opening it. They might or might not send you a rejection letter. If the manuscript was unsolicited, you may not even get a response.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to (once your novel is complete) reach out to publisher editors and determine if they’re interested in your manuscript’s content. You do this in the form of a submission letter. If a publisher’s editor shows interest, then you have an opening. This means you may be invited to send your novel in for review. It doesn’t mean they’ll accept or even read it all, but they might. Reading a full 65,000 word manuscript is not an insignificant amount of time. So, respect the editor’s time they are willing to give you. After all, they’re giving you the length of time it takes to read your book. More than likely, the publisher will reject your manuscript. Expect that you will be writing many submission letters and getting rejections. You’ll need to keep trying until you reach a publisher’s editor who takes interest.

Instead of reading your entire manuscript, an editor might request a detailed synopsis from you. A short description of your novel’s story to determine if it’s something they might have time to read and be able to add to their collection of currently published books. Do whatever the publisher’s editor requests, but don’t be willing to give away the farm. Sure, let them read your novel and give feedback, but know that they are human and as humans, they have opinions. That editor is only one opinion in among many, even if their opinion is that they don’t like your novel.

The Acceptance Rejection

If you get a bite from a publisher, take that as a small win. It doesn’t mean they’ll publish your book, yet. But, it is a hopeful sign. At least they’re talking to you.

Don’t be offended by the opinions an editor might offer you. Simply accept their advice for what it is. You may not agree with their assessment, but at least consider it. If you feel adamant that your book is already in its best possible place and changing it would ruin its current story, yet a publisher’s editor is asking you to make substantial changes in tone and story in your book, you might want to think twice. If you have conviction that your book is already the best it can be, then thank them for their time and move on to someone else. Choose a different publisher. However, you owe it to yourself to at least consider that editor’s advice.

For example, if they offer a suggestion to rework large segments to make the book have a larger emotional impact and potentially appeal to a broader audience, at least consider it. Don’t outright discard their advice. They’ve been in the business for a long amount of time, hopefully, and their advice may have some merit. But, as I said above, don’t fall into spending a large amount of time completely reworking your novel solely on the advice of a single editor… particularly if your rework of the novel doesn’t offer some level of commitment from that publisher. For example, if they’re asking you to rewrite a large section of your novel, you should ensure that the publisher will commit to publishing the book if these changes are made to their satisfaction. It’s a give and take situation. Asking for a time commitment from the author to rewrite should come with at least some strings attached to the publisher. Make sure you get those strings attached firmly.

If they give you advice and then offer no strings and expect you simply to make large changes without even the remote possibility of acceptance, you should view that request with a large amount of skepticism. This is ultimately the acceptance rejection. Instead, you should thank them for their time and suggest that if you do have time to rework the novel, you will resubmit it for review at a later date. Then, go find another publisher accepting manuscripts and submit your original manuscript there. Don’t make the changes to your novel unless you personally think that the suggestion(s) actually will improve the novel in substantial ways or that the publisher is on-the-hook to publish the novel contingent on making those changes. If you commit to making changes for them, they should commit to publishing your updated novel. Get that commitment in writing.

First Time Publishing and Contracts

As a first time published author, however, you are at a disadvantage. In addition to being a new author, a publisher may want to see how business shrewd you are. Sure, you can put words to a page, but can you negotiate? Publishers can take advantage of first time authors simply because the author is “green”. This means because you “don’t know any better” they could ask you to jump through hoops and still not publish your book. Or, they could give you such a small pittance percentage that it doesn’t make sense. Don’t fall into traps like this. If a publisher’s editor seems to be toying with you, but not actually providing any commitments for your novel, again, thank them for their time and move on. Don’t allow them to take advantage of your supposed greenness in the publishing industry.

Instead, use Google and try to learn as much about the protocols of getting your novel published as you possibly can. If they offer you a contract, read it thoroughly and understand your commitments to it (and the publisher). You don’t want to get trapped into a contract that has exclusivity clauses, pays you a pittance or requires you write 3 books over the next 3 years. If it took you 5 years to write your original book, being able to write a book a year may not be possible for you. This is why you will need to understand contract negotiation. You would then need to either strike that verbiage from the contract or modify it to allow you more time to write any further required novels.

Don’t let your lack of knowledge in publishing and contracts blind you to what the publisher is requiring. Maybe you aren’t even seeking to write further novels? Such a contract means you would be legally bound to produce those novels. Read contracts carefully and understand what they are asking you to do. If you can’t read contracts for  yourself, hire a contract lawyer who can decipher the terms of the contract to you and use that contract lawyer to draft alternative terms that work for you. The publisher may not accept the updated terms, but you can then move on without being bound to that publisher.

Payments

Make sure that any contracts you sign stipulate payment terms. More specifically, how often they will pay you your share of the profits from the sale of your book. Is it monthly? Is it whenever the balance reaches $100? Is it yearly? Is it quarterly? Make sure your payment terms are upheld in the contract. You don’t want to be left in the dark as to when the publisher may cut you a check for your share of the profits. You also need to make sure that the contract terms stipulate the ability to audit sales records from the vendors. Make sure you can call, write or log into a site that will give you updated numbers of your book’s sales wherever it’s being sold. You don’t want to be beholden to the publisher to provide you with accurate statistics. I’m not saying publishers are deceitful, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. Make sure you can account for your exact sales from the stores directly and correlate those sales numbers to the amount you have been paid during that period.

Accounting errors happen and you don’t want to be on the receiving end of an accounting error in the publisher’s favor. Nor do you want to have to turn around and sue the publisher for profits they have kept as a result of an “accounting error”. If you have direct access to each store’s sales data, this transparency keeps the publisher honest. They have to provide you with what you are owed. It’s on you to periodically audit and make sure you are getting what you are owed, but the data is there for you to review if you need it.

If you can swing a deal where the stores are paying you directly without going through the publisher, all the better. Middlemen can get in the way and can dilute your payments. However, it’s more likely the publisher will end up paying you the residuals (after they take their cut). You’ll have to negotiate your payments with the publisher and this should be done contractually, not through verbal agreements.

Luck

Coming back around to the original question once again, luck is the biggest factor in whether a book becomes a bestseller. Sure, the content is important. A publisher’s editor, yes, has read many novels and they usually know what story features are most likely to resonate with readers. However, that doesn’t mean that an editor is always correct. They could think that your novel is going to be the next Pulitzer novel, but in fact it barely makes a splash in sales. No one can know what luck has in store. This means that, yes, an editor’s suggestions might be spot on, but it doesn’t guarantee success. It can put the novel on a path towards success, but it can’t guarantee success. Nothing, in fact, can guarantee success of a novel. Luck is one of those fickle things that factors into pretty much any form of entertainment. Whether it’s a movie or a music CD, a video game or a novel. These are all subject to the whims, ebbs and flows of the general population.

If a topic hits at a very salient point in time, it can take the world by storm. Such lightning strikes are rare, but they do happen. For example, Star Wars, Harry Potter and, to some degree, the Marvel universe movies. These became popular by mostly sheer luck and by landing in the marketplace at the right place and the right time. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t something you can guess. It’s a matter of luck. A publisher can help shape your novel into a something that may resemble a bestseller, but it cannot guarantee that luck or, indeed, success. That still requires a certain amount of plain old dice-rolling luck.

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What does “moving the plot forward” really mean?

Posted in best practices, botch, california, storytelling by commorancy on June 17, 2018

This is a good question and it’s a question that many recent screenwriters and storytellers have lost sight of in their zeal to create blockbuster entertainment. Let’s explore the answer to this question.

Important Details

What is good storytelling? Good storytelling is the ability of the writer to keep the audience’s interest, develop interesting characters, tie story details together and all while keeping the story moving. How does this all work?

It means that if you introduce something into your story that’s important enough to call your audience’s attention to it, then it’s important enough to bring it around later and give it closure. It’s as simple as a character pulling a box of cereal from the cabinet, spilling it into a bowl and putting it away all in the span of a page or two. That’s a quick open and close to that box of cereal. Not only is it an important character detail… “the character likes cereal”, it can be used as metaphor for your character (spilling the beans or in other foreshadowing ways).

If it’s important enough to understand that the character likes cereal, then it’s important enough to bring that plot detail back later. It’s also important to use this plot device. If a character pours a bowl of cereal, have them at least take a bite. You don’t pour out food as a thing to do. You do it because you’re hungry.

It’s can also be as detailed as a character buying a car at the beginning of the story and driving it cross country to their destination. It’s the thing that helped the character get where they needed to go.

There’s lots of story reasons that make both that box of cereal or that car important in the larger story and to carry the story forward. It’s that realization later that, “Oh, now I understand why that [insert thing] was shown to me 30 minutes earlier.”

Character Motivation

Characters need motivation to do the things they do. If the movie is about a missing child, then the parent as a main character has a goal of getting the child back. Their motivation is then doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Motivation is a critical plot point that many fail to understand or use properly. Without proper character motivation that the audience can understand, the story doesn’t work.

Unimportant Plot Details

Recently, many stories are breaking the “moving the plot forward” rule and are writing and presenting details that don’t have any follow up or, indeed, any relevance to the story.

In murder mysteries, these “seemingly unimportant details” are important to throw the audience off and make the audience assume the wrong thing about who did it. Typically, murder mysteries either quash or validate all of those seemingly unimportant details in the end to explain how it was done. In a fantasy story, including these types of details only serves to slow (or stop) the plot and bore the audience. Worse, when the audience looks back over the story as a whole, they realize that they wasted 15 or 20 minutes of their lives on details that didn’t progress the story.

This is important, particularly when telling a story that needs to make sense (specifically if it’s part of a series of books or films). If you’re writing for a film, you need to treat each film is a standalone entity and as a whole, never as a part of a set. The only time a detail should be left open is at the very end to create a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers should only be introduced at the very end of a story, never in the middle of your story. However, foreshadowing is a form of a seemingly unimportant detail, but that can be easily overlooked because of its lack of context for the audience at the time.

A cliffhanger introduced in the middle of the story makes you look like an amateur author. That is, someone who can’t be bothered to close all ends of presented details. If you don’t close details, you better make it appear to be intentional. Otherwise, it’s an amateur move.

Introduction of Scenes

Many movies today introduce scenes into films that have no followup and no explanation. If you’re planning to have your characters do something in a scene, that scene must be important for something in the future.

For example, if your characters need to go to the grocery story to pick up something, then make the grocery store scene count in some way. The characters meet someone there who imparts an important story detail or item (even if hidden). Use the scene as important to the story. If showing the grocery store is important enough to describe in detail, then it should be important enough to advance the plot. Otherwise, cut the scene out. Simply explain the characters have left for the store at the end of one chapter and have the characters arrive back from the store at the beginning of the next chapter and skip the grocery store environment altogether.

The point is, if a scene is important enough to include and describe in detail, then the scene should impart important plot details that move the story forward.

Montage Scenes

There are many ways to show passage of time. On the pages of a novel, you can do it between chapters simply by explaining the date and time when appropriate. On screen, it’s simple enough to show passage of time through a montage of daily activities. Instead of deep diving into every activity, you simply show a quick succession of scenes that show details (shopping, driving, running, tennis, etc). Whatever the scenes are, they should impart character details that lead up to wherever the plot is heading. It isn’t important to show everything the character does, but it may be important to know some of the daily activities a character enjoys doing when developing a character.

Again, if it’s important enough to show the details, it’s important to use this information to advance the plot. When it’s important to show a bunch of details in quick succession, this can be done through montage scenes without character dialog. In fact, tension scenes and montage scenes without character dialog are a whole lot more effective than characters talking or arguing.

Write with Intention

The point to all of this is, as a writer, you need to write with intention. Make every word you write count towards the plot. If you write a scene that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t follow logic, is out of character or doesn’t impart any new or relevant information, cut it. Scenes that stagnate the story make the writer seem distracted and amateur. Write with relevance, write with detail, write with intention.

Sure, go ahead and write and get your story done. But, be prepared to edit and trim those sections and details that don’t affect the plot. If you’re writing an action story, then you want to keep the action going. Having your character stop and spend 30 minutes in a cemetery bereaving a loved one doesn’t move your story forward. Cut it. The only time you could use this is if your action character goes to the cemetery looking for bad guys. Setting this location up for an action scene is fine, but just going there not to do anything, that’s story death.

Always keep your story genre in your mind when writing. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then keep on that track. If you’re writing an action fantasy story, then make sure it stays true to that. If you’re writing a family drama, then stay true to that. Don’t hop around genres hoping to hit gold. The audience will not only end up confused, they won’t know what’s going on. Stick to your genre.

Closing Threads

If you bring up a story detail early, be sure to close it later. What that means is, when writing your story, keep a list of open story items and then find the best places to close them. If you can’t find a place to close a detail, get rid of it from the story as it’s an unimportant detail.

For example, if a character drops their car off at a mechanic at the beginning of the story, then make sure the character picks it up later. It could be at the very end of the story or it could be anywhere along the way. Just make sure it happens. If the audience gets to the end of the story and is still left wondering what happened to the car (or why the car detail was included), you’ve failed as a writer. If you leave two or three of these plot devices open, it makes you look amateur. Close all open threads in meaningful ways and at appropriate times.

Visual Storytelling versus The Written Word

In a novel, it’s important to describe very detailed descriptions of a scene, of the character’s dress, demeanor, looks and so on. When writing for the screen, let the visual elements do the talking. You don’t need to have characters describe what they are seeing or doing. It’s redundant and unimportant and can be seen by the audience. The only time this works is if a character is talking to another character on the phone or over a radio. Here it’s important because not only is the audience finding out what’s going on on the other end of the phone, more importantly, so is the character.

It’s more important to have the characters unfold their stories themselves rather than catering to the audience. In visual mediums like film and TV, let the camera describe the scene. Don’t have the character (or a narrator) do this unless the character is blind or in some other way handicapped and needs this information. It has to make sense for the character in the story. Never cater to the audience by describing in visual medium. In the written word, it’s required to describe all of the details because the audience won’t have any other way to get this information.

In a way, a novel is just the opposite for descriptions than visual medium. You almost have to be too verbose when composing for the written word. When composing for film, you want to be the least verbally descriptive as possible. Let the audiences see the wonder themselves.

Writing for the Characters

The story is always about the characters, never about the audience. Sure, you can have the character break the “fourth wall” if it’s an important story detail (i.e., a running gag). The problem is, breaking the “fourth wall” takes you out of the story and is firmly rooted in writing gags for the audience. If you take your story seriously, then don’t do this. For some stories and characters, it works fine. For anyone writing a story where the characters are the most important thing, then don’t write gags for the audience.

Humor is fine when it’s between the characters, but when it becomes the characters interacting with the audience, this stops the story and makes the audience realize the gag (and loss of suspension of disbelief).

Suspension of Disbelief

To rope an audience into your story, writing solid, believable characters is the key. It doesn’t matter what the characters are doing or where they are placed, it matters that the audience believes the characters can do those things in those places. This is a powerful concept that is also the key to good storytelling. Doing even one thing that ruins this suspension of disbelief ruins your story. It’s the thing that can make or break your writing efforts. This concept is the quintessential key. Having an audience suspend their disbelief and buy into your fanciful world is the magic of a successful story.

For example, using a fourth wall gag can make or break your story. It also requires a certain kind of story to succeed. In other words, adding such a fourth wall gag makes your life as a writer much more difficult. If you’re not accustomed to what goes along with such a gag, you should avoid it. I’d also recommend avoiding it because it really does nothing to progress the story and it does much to discredit your story up to that point.

Cliché Tropes

Let me say right now that nothing today is original. There is always something that can be found as derivative of something else. As a writer, you have to accept that notion going into your story. What makes your story original is not the setup, or the locations or even the plot, but how your characters deal with their situations. Characters are what drive stories. Yet, tropes are what make stories fanciful and, sometimes, fun to watch. Using them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overusing them, however, most certainly can be bad. Using a trope here and there can make the story familiar to the audience. Familiarity allows for the audience to latch onto your story faster and ‘get into it’.

There are lesser used and more frequently used tropes. You should avoid the frequently used tropes and focus on those that are lesser used. Having your characters doing something a little bit unexpected or unpredictable can make the story work better. Tropes add predictability to the story. This can be a good thing when you’re trying to lead the audience off the track of what the characters are really doing. This allows you to trick your audience into believing one thing, when the characters are actually doing something else. Some audience members will see right through that, though. You have to expect that.

I’m not saying not to use tropes, just use them sparingly and at appropriate times. Again, write with intention. Make every word and thought count. If you’re including it, make sure that it serves a purpose (even if it’s a cliché trope).

Character Development

This is probably the most important element to establishing suspension of disbelief. Grounding your characters in a reality that your audience can understand goes a long way towards getting your story off of the ground. Basically, you want to properly introduce your main characters at appropriate times. Your main characters should, unless the story warrants it, remain throughout the entire length of your tale. They may face adversity, trials and even risk life and limb, but they should survive the tale.

Killing off your established characters is not only a waste, but usually unnecessary. On the other hand, secondary characters can be treated with all of the careless abandon that you choose. If they live for a page, so be it. If they fall off of a cliff, so be it. If they disappear and reappear in the story, so be it. It’s entirely up to you how you handle secondary characters.

When building your main characters, it’s important to understand their motivations, wants, likes, dislikes, hobbies and desires. You can unfold these along the way, particularly when it’s important to move the story forward. With secondary characters, you don’t go nearly as deep. Secondary characters are, for all intents and purposes, scenery. They’re there to show that other people live in this same universe, but they don’t need to be fleshed out to exacting detail.

Identifying Plot Moving Details

If you intend to flesh out a secondary character with heavy detail, then you should make them a main character or avoid fleshing them out. The home life and kids of a cashier at the above grocery store is an unimportant detail. It slows down the plot and story pacing to learn more of this character when she serves no future purpose in the plot. If the cashier doesn’t swoop in to save the day at the end, then there’s no point in including heavy detail about that character.

This is how you identify useless versus useful plot points. If you introduce a plot point and it comes around later, then the point of introduction did move the story forward. If you introduce a plot point and it never comes around later, then it didn’t move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t serve to move the story forward should be cut from the story.

This is why you need to read and re-read your story several times front to back. Then, let other people read it and offer feedback on your story’s logic. If you’re a one-man team writing a story without getting outside feedback, then your story is likely nowhere near as good as you think it is. It takes other people to help you find the weak spots and fix them. Constructive criticism is always your friend. Use it to improve your stories. The final advice is, never take your first story draft as your final. Nothing is ever written perfectly the first draft. Not even this blog article.

Examples of Bad Storytelling

I didn’t include any real entertainment production examples in this article because I want it to remain as an objective guide to would-be storytellers rather than as a rant against any specific entertainment production, even though those productions well deserve the rants.

With that said, I do intend to write a follow-up article with examples identifying recent entertainment story failures and call out why and how they failed. I will also mention that this problem is not limited to film and novels. It also rears its ugly head in video games and in TV series. I will also mention that some bad storytelling isn’t always the direct fault of the writer. Though, the writer is somewhat culpable. Instead, it can be because of politics within the production (i.e., inclusion riders). Sometimes characters or specific actors are forced into a story, not because they were there, but because the producer wants it in the production. This forces the director to introduce something that shouldn’t be there and throws off the entire story’s logic. Note, I do classify this politically correct shoehorning as a failure in writing.

Basically, when writing your story’s setting, make sure to represent all ethnic groups and genders equally or face the consequences if your story is ever optioned for the big or small screen. Otherwise, expect your period piece’s story logic to fall apart when an ethnic cast is chosen to play a small white mostly male mid-America town set in the 70s.

Note, there is tons more that I could write about this topic. However, this guide is simply intended as an ‘Intro Guide’ on good storytelling. If you would like me to flesh out this article in more detail, please leave a comment below about what you would like to see included.

 

Star Trek Voyager: Inconsistencies Abound

Posted in entertainment, writing by commorancy on April 2, 2015

I’ve recently decided to rewatch all of the seasons of Star Trek Voyager again. I missed many of the later episodes and decided now is the time to watch them. One thing I have noticed is that time has not been kind to this series, neither have the writers. Let’s explore.

Seasons 1, 2 and 3

The first thing you’ll notice about season one is the dire predicament in which Voyager is placed. After attempting rescue of a Maquis ship, the Voyager gets pulled into an unknown anomaly and is sent hurtling into the delta quadrant. After the two ship crews merge, because they need the Maquis ship as an explosive, they ‘assimilate’ both crews onto the Voyager. This is where the fun begins.

The first season sees a lot of resistance and animosity from the Maquis crew towards Star Fleet. Captain Janeway makes some questionable decisions, like blowing up the caretaker array instead of trying to salvage it, thus stranding everyone in the delta quadrant. From here, we see many a shuttle accident in among holodeck romps. It seems that every time a shuttle tries to land somewhere (for whatever reason), it ends up crashing and Voyager has to come to the rescue. If we’re not seeing rescued downed shuttles, we’re playing with stupid characters on the holodeck or beaming critical staff (sometimes the Captain herself) into inexcusably dangerous situations.

The second and third seasons keep expanding what was started in the first. But, one thing you’ll notice is that while Janeway keeps close tabs on stock depletion in the first season, all that subtext is dropped by the second season. By the third season, it became a monster of the week series where Voyager was ‘reset’ at the beginning of each episode to have a full crew, full armament of torpedoes and a full complement of shuttle craft. Additionally, any damage sustained in a previous episode was non-existent in the next episode. The only continuity that was pulled forward was the replicator rations. And, that plot device was only pulled forward to give the Neelix character some work to do as a makeshift chef in the Captain’s private dining room.

Unfortunately, dropping the limited stock, rations, crew complement and limited shuttle craft supply was a singly bad move for the writers and this series. Seeing Voyager become increasingly more and more damaged throughout the series would have added to the realism and cemented the dire predicament in which this ship was placed. In fact, in the episode Equinox (straddling seasons 5 and 6), the Equinox ship is likely similar to how Voyager’s ship and crew should have looked by that point in their journey. Also, at some point in the journey through the delta quadrant, Janeway would have had to drop the entire Star Fleet pretext to survive. If, like the Equinox, half of the crew had been killed in a battle, Janeway would have been forced to reconsider the Prime Directive and Star Fleet protocol. In fact, this entire story premise could have started a much more compelling story arc at a time when Voyager’s relevance as a series was seriously waning and viewership dropping. Taking Voyager out of its sterile happy-go-lucky situation and placing it into more dire realistic circumstance could have led to an entirely new viewership audience. Situations not unlike this would ultimately be played out in later series like BSG where this type of realism would become the norm and a breath of fresh air in the previously tired formulaic series.

Star Trek, up to Voyager, had always been a sterile yet friendly series where each episode arc always closed with a happy-ending. Each episode was always tied up far too neatly in a pretty little bow, possibly also wrapped in a morality play. While that worked in the 60s and seemed to work in the 80s for TNG, during the 90s that premise wore extremely thin. By the 2000s, gritty realism was the way of series like Stargate, 24, Lost, BSG and Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, by comparison, the new influx of gritty realism in other series made Voyager, DS9 and TNG seem quaint and naïve by comparison. Instead of perfectly coiffed hair and immaculately cleaned and pressed uniforms, we would now see dirty costumes, hair that is unmanaged, very little makeup and character scenarios where everything doesn’t work out perfectly at the end.

While Brannon Braga, Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor should get a few kudos for attempting to keep Star Trek alive, they did so at the cost of not keeping up with the times and sacrificing the franchise entirely as a result. Even when Voyager was introduced, the episodic formula that Voyager provided was already wearing thin. Even during its initial run, it was somewhat quaint and naïve already. Like attempting to recreate the Brady Bunch series exactly as it was in the 70s in the 2000s, Voyager was a throwback to the past. All of this is mostly the reason I stopped watching it during its original airing. Like an old comfort toy from childhood, eventually you have to leave it behind and grow more mature. Star Trek Voyager just didn’t grow up and mature with the prevailing winds of change, its audience age demographic and the prevailing TV series landscape. It’s ironic, Star Trek is about growth, maturity and learning, yet while the producers and writers were churning out weekly stories about these very topics, they couldn’t manage to keep up with the growth trends in their own industry. In short, Voyager needed a drastic mid-series makeover (after season 3) to keep up with the changing times.

Inconsistencies

In the first season specifically, Janeway institutes replicator rations, power saving measures, yet fully allows the crew to use the holodeck at will. Seriously, the holodeck is probably one of the top energy drains on that ship, and you’re going to let the crew use this power hungry thing willy-nilly? Yet, you force the crew to limited replicator rations? Why not disable the holodeck except for emergency use and let the crew have all the replicator rations they want? It’s seems fair to me.

Again, in the first season, Janeway identifies that the ship has limited shuttle and torpedo complements. Yet, in 3rd and later seasons, Voyager is popping off photon torpedos like candy. I also have no idea just how many shuttles have been destroyed, disabled or otherwise left as junk on planets. Yet, Voyager seems to have an infinite supply of them. It also seems that Voyager has an infinite supply of crew and torpedoes. I believe it was counted that Voyager shot off somewhere close to 98 torpedoes the entire 7 season run. And, considering that 7 seasons was actually only 7 of Voyager’s 23 years in the delta quadrant, extrapolating that out means Voyager would have shot over 320 torpedoes in the 23 years they were in the delta quadrant when they only had 38 on board.

On top of all of this, Janeway is a completely reckless captain. She continually puts her crew in harm’s way intentionally looking for resources, scouring through junk, investigating, exploring, trying to salvage Borg cubes. You name it, Janeway has had her crew recklessly do it, instead of the obvious… trying to find a way home. How that crew managed not to actually mutiny and kick her butt out of the captain’s chair is beyond me. Janeway is seriously the most reckless captain in Star Fleet. Far and above Kirk in recklessness.

Episode Writing Continuity Carelessness

In Season 4 Episode 23 entitled Living Witness, the Doctor is reactivated 700 years in the future on the Kyrian home planet in the Delta quadrant. There was never any discussion that this episode was built from any kind of temporal anomaly. The Doctor finds he is part of a museum exhibit and is called upon to clear Voyager’s name for being part of the ship that started their war. Ignoring the stupid war premise which really makes no difference one way or another, what this episode states is that the Doctor’s holo matrix is downloaded during an attack on Voyager and left on the planet for 700 years.

Let me pause here for a moment to catch everyone up since there have been some questions about this specific episode’s setup (which was, by the way, also inconsistent). Pretty much the entire series before and after the Living Witness episode drilled the point home time and time again that due to the doctor’s expanded holomatrix, ‘he’ was ‘unique’ and ‘uncopyable’. Because this point was driven home time and time again and because it was used as a plot device to ensure both the audience and the Voyager crew understood just how much the doctor was like a human, we are told the doctor is unique, individual, indispensable, irreplaceable and can die. There was even a Kes episode about this whole idea, but not the only one. When the rest of the crew was ready to reboot the doctor because his holomatrix had been degraded so badly, Kes stood by the doctor and vouched for his uniqueness, individuality and stood up for the doctor (when he couldn’t) to continue trying to keep him intact. If it had been as easy as making a backup copy and restoring a doctor copy, the ship could have used a backup doctor several times when the ‘real’ doctor goes on away missions, instead of leaving Kes and Paris to run Sickbay. They could have even used a backup copy to overlay his later degraded version on top and clean his matrix up. Yet, this never manifests not once in any episode. In fact, as I said, the writers did everything they could to ensure we understood that he was uncopyable, not even with the mobile emitter. So, what does this all mean? It means that the mobile emitter that was found contained the actual doctor, not a copy as was theorized.

What this story flaw also says is that there should no longer be an EMH on Voyager after the doctor has been left on this planet for over 700 years. It also means that no other episodes after this event should ever see this EMH program again. In another episode, Harry Kim tries to recreate the EMH after the doctor was thought to be lost during that episode, but after Kim fails, he leaves Paris to fend for himself in Sickbay. This means that there is exactly one doctor and he was left on Kyrian planet. The Doctor serves the Kyrians for a period of time, but eventually finds his way home to Earth 700-800 years after Voyager. Yet, in episodes after Living Witness, the Doctor is happily helping folks in Sickbay once again, including appearing in the final episode entitled Endgame.

Now, one could argue that Living Witness happened sometime later at the end of Voyager’s run, but then why is it in season 4? It also means that for at least some duration of Voyager’s trip, the Doctor EMH program was not available. Though, B’lana might have created a new rudimentary EMH, we never saw it. Yet, in Season 7, Episode 23 — Endgame, we see the Doctor come strolling through the Voyager party 23 years later. Assuming the episode Living Witness to be true, then this is a major continuity error. The doctor should not be in Endgame at all. He should still be deactivated on the Kyrian homeworld.

Let’s consider how it’s even possible that the mobile emitter was left (or was stolen) in Living Witness. Since there was only and ever one mobile emitter, that logically means the doctor should not have had the mobile emitter for any episode after that Living Witness (assuming we accept the ‘backup’ idea, which I don’t). Yet, we continue to see the mobile emitter used on episodes all the way to the very end when Voyager returns. This episode contains far too many consistency problems and should not have aired.

Lack of Season-wide Story Arc

Star Trek The Next Generation attempted to create a few longer story arcs. But, the writers never really embraced such arcs beyond the borders of an episode (or multi-part episodes). Though, some character relationship arcs did reach beyond the borders (i.e., love relationships, children, cultural rituals, marriages, etc), arcs related to alien races, ship resources, ship damage or astral phenomena (with the exception of the Q) were almost never carried forward. So, for example, in TNG, during season 7, the Force of Nature episode forced Star Fleet to institute a warp speed limited due to warp drive destruction of subspace. That speed limit arc carried through a few episodes, but was ultimately dropped and ignored during Voyager. It was dropped primarily because it didn’t help the writers produce better episodes. By forcing starships to travel at slower warp speed, nothing good came from this plot device. In fact, this speed limit would have only served to hinder Voyager in getting home. Clearly, the writers had not yet conceived of Voyager when TNG’s Force of Nature aired. Otherwise, the producers might have reconsidered airing this episode.

Also, because warp speed is a fairly hard to imagine concept in general, artificially limiting speeds in a series where fantasy and space travel is the end goal actually served to undermine the series. There were many ideas that could have created larger more compelling story arcs besides setting an unnecessary speed limit. The sole purpose for the speed limit, I might also add, was only to make Star Trek appear eco-friendly towards the inhabitants of the Milky Way… as if it even needed that moniker. I digress.

Even at the time when TNG was ending, other non-Trek series were beginning to use very large and complex story arcs. Yet, Star Trek TNG, DS9 and Voyager clung tightly to story arcs that fit neatly within a 42 minute episode border. This 42 minute closed border ultimately limited what appeared in subsequent episodes. Very rarely did something from a previous episode appear in a later episode unless it was relationship driven or the writers were hard-up for stories and wanted to revisit a specific plot element from a previous episode. In general, that was rare. In Voyager, it happens in the season 5 episode Course: Oblivion (which this entire episode was not even about Voyager’s crew) and which is a sequel to the season 4 episode Demon (where the crew lands on a Class Y planet and is cloned by a bio-mimetic gel). These types of story sequels are rare in the Star Trek universe, especially across season boundaries, but they did occasionally happen. Even though such stories might appear occasionally, Star Trek stayed away from season-wide or multi-season wide story arcs, with the exception of character relationship arcs.

Janeway’s Inconsistencies

The writers were not kind to the Janeway character. One minute she’s spouting the prime directive and the next she’s violating it. There is no consistency at all here. Whatever the story requires forces Janeway’s ethics out the airlock. The writers take no care to keep her character consistent, forthright, honest and fair. No, she will do whatever it takes to make the story end up the way the writers want. It’s too bad too because in the beginning, the Janeway character started out quite forthright. By the time Seska leaves the ship, I’m almost rooting for a mutiny to get Janeway out of the way. In fact, I actually agreed with Seska to a certain extent. Janeway’s number one priority was to protect the crew and make it safely back to the Alpha quadrant as timely as possible. Instead, Janeway feels needlessly compelled to galavant for 23 years all over the Delta quadrant making more enemies than friends, killing her crew one-by-one, destroying shuttles, using up torpedos, using up ship resources and generally being a nuisance.

Worse, Janeway’s diplomatic skills with alien races is about as graceful as a hammer hitting your thumb. She just didn’t get it. The Sisko character in DS9 got it. The Seska character got it. Janeway, definitely not. While she may have been trained to Captain the tiny Voyager ship, she had absolutely zero diplomatic skills. I’m guessing that’s why Star Fleet never tapped her to helm a Galaxy class ship and, instead, forced her into the tiny Intrepid class for scientific exploration.

I’m not even sure why Star Fleet tapped Voyager to go find the Maquis ship. While Voyager may be somewhat more maneuverable than a Galaxy class ship, a Galaxy class ship would have been better suited to find and bring back the Maquis ship in the first episode, not Voyager. So, even the series started out wrong.

Commentary

Time has also not been kind to the Voyager episodes themselves. Both the Next Generation and Voyager relied on the weekly episodic nature of the series. The 7 day span between airing of episodes gave viewers time to forget all about the last episode before the next one aired. This time gap helped the series.. a lot! But, in the age of DVD sets and Netflix where commercials are devoid and there’s no need to wait any length of time to watch the next episode, watching Voyager in rapid succession shows just how glaring the continuity flaws are. No, this format is definitely not kind to Voyager. It’s not even just the continuity errors. It’s stupid decisions. Like arbitrarily deciding that it’s perfectly okay to leave Holodeck simulations running even when the ship is running out of power with no way to replenish. Like firing yet another large volley of photon torpedoes at a Borg ship when you only have 38 on board. Like continually and intentionally sending shuttle crafts into known atmospheric disturbances only for them to be disabled and downed. Janeway is the very definition of reckless with her ship, with her command, with her crew and with their lives. Yet, no one on board saw it, commented or mentioned this. Seska came close, but she left the ship before she got that far with Janeway.

Overall, when it was originally on, it was more enjoyable. Today it’s a quaint series with many glaring flaws, no overall story progression and a silly ending. Frankly, I’m surprised this series actually ran for 7 years. It should have ended at about the fifth season. Basically, after Kes (Jennifer Lien) left and the series picked up Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), it all went downhill.

If anything is responsible for killing off the Star Trek franchise, it’s Voyager. Yes, Enterprise came after, but Enterprise was just too foreign to really make it as a full fledged Star Trek. It was really a casualty of Voyager instead of being to blame for the demise of Star Trek.

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